Home Power #35 • June / July 1993
Walt Pyle, Alan Spivak, ReynaldoCortez, and Jim Healy
©1993 Walt Pyle
gas fed battery that never needsrecharging! This articledescribes a process for buildinga fuel cell using tools and techniquesany skilled hobbyist with a well-equipped shop can duplicate. The fuelcell that we built can produce directcurrent electricity from stored hydrogenand oxygen. We obtained the hydrogenfor this fuel cell commercially but planto produce hydrogen and oxygen froma renewable energy system based onsolar photovoltaics and waterelectrolyzers.
Cookbook Approach to Building a Fuel Cell
In this article we reveal the process we used to make aproton exchange membrane (PEM) fuel cell.First, we describe what the PEM material is, and whereto get it. Then we cover the steps necessary forpreparing the membrane to use it in a fuel cell.Next, we describe the catalyst and binders used onboth sides of the PEM and the method of “hot-pressing” them all together to form the single fuel cellcatalyst-PEM-catalyst “sandwich”.Finally, the holder for the catalyzed PEM fuel cell withits gas supply piping, insulators, and wiring studs isshown.Some PEM fuel cell performance data were obtainedusing an electrical resistor to provide a variable load.Two digital multimeters and a shunt resistor were usedto measure the voltage and current, so we couldcalculate the power produced.Although the fuel cell described produces a relativelylow voltage, several fuel cells of this kind can be wiredin series to produce higher voltages and do usefulwork.
The PEM Material
The PEM (proton exchange membrane) material is aperfluorosulfonic acid polymer film. Severalmanufacturers make PEMs in one form or another. Weused one made by du Pont called Nafion 117. Nafion117 is a transparent polymer film about 175 microns(0.007 inches) thick. Dow Chemical Co., AsahiChemical Co., and Chloride Engineers Ltd. makesomething similar. A patent describing how one PEMmanufacturer’s film is processed is listed in thereferences section at the end of this article.The basic structural unit formula for Nafion 117 isshown below:
Nafion 117 contains fluorine, carbon, oxygen, sulfur,and hydrogen arranged in repeating polymermolecules. The hydrogen atom on the SO
part of themolecule can detach from one SO
site. The free H+proton can hop from SO
site to SO
site through thematerial, to emerge on the other side of the membrane.This is the reason it is called a proton exchangemembrane. It can be thought of as solid sulfuric acid,an electrolyte.The PEM is relatively expensive at this point in time.We paid about $100 for a 30.5 centimeter by 30.5centimeter (12 inch by 12 inch) piece of Nafion 117from a chemical supply house. Some manufacturerswant your first born child in exchange for a sample.However, du Pont really is in the PEM business, andthey will sell it to you with no strings attached from theirpilot plant production. The price comes down to about$65 for the same size piece when you buy four timesas much PEM direct from du Pont. The piece webought was large enough to make about six of ourround fuel cells ($10–$16/cell).
Punching the PEM Disk from a Sheet of Nafion 117
We set the sheet of Nafion 117 on a piece of cleanacrylic plastic using clean cotton gloves to avoidcontaminating the sheet with fingerprints. Then wepunched out some round PEM disks using a 4.76centimeter (1
inch) arch punch and a mechanicshammer filled with lead powder. After one or two tries,we found that several strikes with the hammer atdifferent angles was best for cutting the disk free fromthe sheet. Striking the punch too hard shattered theacrylic sheet.